Obama's open-government director opens up

<b style="color:#900;">q&a</b> Beth Noveck, the Obama administration's deputy chief technology officer, has been a principal contributor to the Open Government directive.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

On Tuesday morning, the Obama administration formally unveiled its Open Government directive, an effort aimed at weaving the philosophies of openness, transparency and participation into the DNA of the federal government and its agencies.

That directive comes as a direct result of President Barack Obama's first executive action, on January 21, only hours after the hoopla from his inaugural parade and parties had died down, when the new chief executive issued the so-called Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.

Beth Noveck, director of the Obama administration's open-government efforts New York Law School

That document, which began, "My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," was a forceful opening move by the new president, and one intended to make good on his campaign call for reform and openness.

For Beth Noveck, Obama's deputy chief technology officer for open government and a principal contributor to both the original Open Government memo and Tuesday's formal directive, this is more than just a chance to watch the new administration attempt to reverse decades of ingrained government reticence at letting the public get too close to policy discussions. It is also a chance to take a stab at changing the world.

Noveck, who for years has been a faculty member at New York Law School, had begun volunteering for the Obama campaign in early 2007, offering up her expertise in technology policy and in how to use technology to make policy. And when Obama won the 2008 presidential election, she quickly became the first member of what was known as the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform team, which was focused on thinking about how to actually bring about open government.

She's an accomplished law professor, and someone who gained some notoriety as the organizer of the State of Play conferences, which examined the legal, social, and intellectual issues surrounding virtual worlds and online games. But Noveck may have best secured her place in the Obama campaign and, later, the administration, with her groundbreaking work on the Peer to Patent project. That effort--which began in 2005 and became the subject of Noveck's 2009 book, "Wiki Government"--was aimed at applying the expertise of individual members of the public to the vastly overworked U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Today, Noveck is the director of the administration's open-government efforts, and was the one person that the administration's Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra called out by name during their Tuesday event to unveil the directive. Last week, she spoke with CNET about that role, about what her major goals are while in Washington, and about why transparency, collaboration and participation are so important to government working better for the American people.

Q: Describe, in your own words, what Open Government is, and what the administration's goals are for it?
Beth Noveck: Open Government is the effort to create government institutions that are more transparent--that work more in the open and that provide information more readily online and in real time--and that are also more participatory, engaging people in how government makes decisions and policies, earlier in the process, and with the benefit of input from more and more widespread stakeholders, not just people in Washington. And the role of government becomes more collaborative, working together across government institutions, and then across levels of government.

This is something that is pretty much possible today because of the Internet, correct?
Noveck: Absolutely. There have been efforts in every generation to bring about government reform, to create government that works better and more efficiently. But what's really a sea change today is that technology is making available this kind of open collaboration that we've never had before. Now we can get more information up as close to real time as possible and make it available not just on the Internet, but make it available so people can download it, look at that data, mash up that data, and derive greater meaning from it, and hopefully also, hold government more accountable as a result.

What makes you think that the public is ready for this kind of opportunity?
Noveck: Previously, you had only a few ways in which you could engage with government. You could vote in an election. Maybe you could write a comment in response to a rule that a federal agency might put out, like what's the appropriate fuel efficiency for trucks. You could write a letter to your Congressman. Now what we see is the opportunity to do things like get involved in a policy forum, not just by writing a comment that you have to mail to a federal agency in Washington, but by much more easily and quickly responding to a discussion about information technology in health care, and electronic health care records on a Health and Human Services Department blog. You may, for example, have technical skills and take some of the data that's being made available on Data.gov, like the flight record data that the FAA is putting out, and make an iPhone app that allows consumers to track when flights are on time. Which someone did.

"The idea is when you're using technology to put information up online, it becomes very hard to take it offline without people noticing it."
--Beth Noveck, deputy CTO for open government

The process you're in is not finished yet. What have you achieved so far with the Open Government initiative?
Noveck: We're by no means finished. And what we've been able to achieve is to transition from something that was the work of a handful of White House offices to something that is really the work of every single official across the government. Now, we are moving towards an open-government directive, which will instruct every government agency to be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative according to these specific milestones and instructions. And what we're seeing is that across the government, every department and agency has begun already to undertake initiatives to put more data up online, to begin to consult the public in new ways and to get the public engaged in policymaking in new ways, to use new technology to undertake collaboration, and competitions, and initiatives like, for example, Health and Human Services running a competition to design the best public-safety announcement in connection with the H1N1 flu vaccine.

Do you think that this culture shift will become permanent?
Noveck: This is really core to the president's vision of government. This points to the ability to use new technology to hard-wire this kind of reform and accountability into the culture of government so that it can't be undone in the next administration, so that we're not simply asking for data transparency now and then we're going to go back eight years from now. Really, the idea is when you're using technology to put information up online, it becomes very hard to take it offline without people noticing it.

Your work was pretty evident in the president's memorandum, correct?
Noveck: We had something called the Technology Innovation Reform Team--which was focused on how do we actually think about bringing innovation into government--as one of the core planning groups that was created during the transition in order to focus on such issues as open government. I was the initial member of that team, and that helped to produce a lot of the early work that we've done, including the creation of the role of a chief technology officer, the creation of a whole set of policies and projects that we've been undertaking over the course of the early stage of the administration. We all worked as a team.

On a personal level, can you talk about what it's been like to work in the White House?
Noveck: This is without a doubt the greatest honor and the greatest challenge of my professional career. Even for someone who likes to be busy and likes to multitask, working in the White House is an unbelievable challenge because of the range of issues that we deal with on a daily basis. It means that I'm working on a Health and Human Services issue at 9 o'clock and at 10 o'clock, talking to the Department of Labor, at 11 o'clock, I'm talking to the Department of Education. The advantage to that kind of breadth is the ability to help foster collaboration and knowledge exchange across department and agencies, so we can say to the Department of Education, this is what Health and Human Services is doing to bring innovation to the way they work. Or, Department of Labor, here's what's going on in some other area of government. So that ability to be at kind of the intersection of information exchange is incredibly valuable.

What is the status today of Peer to Patent?
Noveck: The Peer to Patent team did its own assessment after a two-year pilot, and now the Patent Office is studying it. The chair of the steering committee for Peer to Patent, is now the new undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and the director of the Patent Office, David Kappos, so he is very much a friend of the concept of citizen engagement and participation in Patent Office practice, and so now the office just has to assess for itself how they are going to institutionalize the concept of citizen engagement and participation in the work that they do.

Stepping back to earlier in your career, can you talk about the connective tissue between your work with the State of Play conferences and what you're doing now?
Noveck: Over the last decade, we've seen the evolution of three-dimensional visual technologies and the question is how do we take the latest technological innovations and apply them to the betterment and strengthening of our democracy? State of Play was always intended to be a look at whatever the latest tools are that help us to understand how we can collaborate and work together in a peaceful fashion. And that's really the essence of what our political institutions do: Create vehicles for us to work together to solve collective public problems and to do so in peaceful ways and ways informed by the best quality information. And for me, it's a very direct path from that set of ideas, that informed the creation of those conferences, to the development of the Peer to Patent platform for getting people involved in the patent process, to now, creating a national agenda on open government, and trying to bring together the technology worlds and the world of government institutions to improve the way we make decisions for all of our benefit.